Monday, January 18, 2021

The Bishop Murder Case (1929)

The Bishop Murder Case was the fourth of the movie adaptations of S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance mystery novels. It was released by MGM in 1929. William Powell had played Vance in the first three films but for this one his place is taken by Basil Rathbone (Powell would return to the rôle four years later for The Kennel Murder Case).

The plot is complex and the body count is very high. A young man named Robin is found murdered, shot through the heart with an arrow. The police receive a note including the text of the nursery rhyme about Cock Robin, and signed by The Bishop.

Naturally District Attorney John F.-X. Markham asks his old friend Philo Vance to assist him in the investigation. In fact Vance takes over the case more or less completely, as he usually did.

The first murder takes place on an archery range in the grounds of the home of Professor Bertrand Dillard and the murdered man was the sweetheart of the professor’s niece Belle. It seems obvious that the murder had to be someone connected in some way with Professor Dillard.

Other murders follow, all with links to nursery rhymes and with a chess piece (a bishop) left at the scene. The murderer is either a madman obsessed with nursery rhymes or a madman obsessed with chess. Or perhaps a man who is all too sane but fiendishly clever who is just playing games with the police.

There are plenty of suspects but the ones who seem most promising keep getting murdered, much to the disgust of Sergeant Heath.

Being a 1929 release this movie suffers from many of the problems that afflict the very early talkies. The pacing is slow. There’s no music, which makes the film seem slower and less exciting. While Rathbone is fine some of the supporting players are still acting in the style of silent movies and haven’t yet learnt that extravagant gestures just don’t work in talkies.

It would be unfair to be too hard on the directors, David Burton and Nick Grinde. Everyone in Hollywood at that time was struggling to adapt to the very different challenges posed by talkies (which really were an entirely different medium requiring entirely different techniques compared to silent films) and there were lots of technical difficulties at first with the sound cameras, which tended to result in excessively static camera setups. And it has to be said that the opening sequence is excellent and visually impressive. Actually there are quite a few good visual moments in the film.

Casting Philo Vance was always a problem. The character created by Van Dine is very much an upper-class American. Vance has to have not only the upper-class American accept but that air of old money, an expensive education and breeding. Today the rôle would be impossible to cast - there just aren’t any modern actors who are going to get either the accent or the mannerisms right. Even in 1929 it was a challenge. There were still plenty of upper-class Americans in America, but not so many in Hollywood. William Powell carried it off effortlessly but the disappointing performance by the usually excellent Warren William in The Dragon Murder Case demonstrated how even a fine actor could get it wrong.

MGM came up with what must have seemed like a brilliant idea - getting an Englishman to play Vance. It works up to a point, Rathbone gets most of it right, but it doesn’t quite come off. Vance (in my view) has to be upper-class but he has to be American. On the whole I like Ratbone’s performance well enough but he just isn’t quite Philo Vance.

Roland Young is very good as the professor’s adopted son Arnesson. The other supporting cast members are less satisfactory, being either too wooden or too melodramatic.

This film is one of the six included in the Warner Archive Philo Vance Murder Case Collection. The transfer is not great but not too bad. The collection is worth getting if only for the chance of seeing six different actors playing Vance.

The Bishop Murder Case has a great plot but the execution leaves something to be desired. It’s still worth a look if you’re going to buy the boxed set anyway.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Blue, White and Perfect (1942)

Blue, White and Perfect, released in 1942, was the fourth of the seven 20th Century-Fox B-movies featuring private eye Michael Shayne and starring Lloyd Nolan. After 20th Century-Fox lost interest in the series five more films (with Hugh Beaumont in the title rôle) were made by Poverty Row studio PRC in 1946.

The character had been created by Davis Dresser, writing under the pseudonym Brett Halliday. He wrote dozens of Mike Shayne novels between 1939 and 1958 and more were later written by various ghostwriters.

In the 50s there was also a Michael Shayne TV series and a radio series.

Mike Shayne (Nolan) has just had some bad news. His girlfriend Merle (Mary Beth Hughes) is getting married, but not to him. She’s fallen for a charming Frenchman. Mike will have to do something about this. Unfortunately Merle insists that he gives up the private detective business. He agrees and gets a job as a riveter with the Thomas Aircraft Company, or at least that’s what Merle thinks, but in fact the company has hired him as an investigator.

He’ll soon have plenty to investigate. The aircraft plant is absolutely riddled with German spies! We know straight away they’re German spies because they all have heavy German accents and they behave in a really sinister manner, just like German spies in the movies. The spies have stolen some industrial diamonds, essential for the war effort.

The spies intend to get the diamonds out of the country on the liner Princess Nola so Mike will have to take an ocean voyage to keep tabs on them. He’ll need money for that, so he cons it out of poor Merle. On the steamer he runs into an old friend, the glamorous Helen Shaw (Helene Reynolds). He also makes a new friend, Juan Arturo O’Hara (played be George Reeves, yes Superman himself). Whether Helen and Juan are mixed up in the spy business or just innocent bystanders remans to be seen. Mike is sure he’s on the right track with the spies because people keep trying to shoot him (Mike always sees that as a positive sign).

Shayne doesn’t really solve the case. He just manages to stay alive long enough to stumble over the solution. He can’t even be given credit for the staying alive part - it’s mostly just dumb luck. Which makes him strangely likeable. You can’t help wondering what his next mistake will be.

The Fox Mike Shayne movies were very lightweight and had a tendency at times to overdo the comedic elements. That’s less of a problem with this film. The focus is more heavily on the plot and it’s at least a little bit more hardboiled (but only a little) than other entries in the series. Lloyd Nolan is also much better when, as in this film, he tones the comedy down a bit. There’s still plenty of humour and plenty of wisecracks but he comes across as a moderately believable (if not very competent) private detective.

It needs to be admitted up front that Michael Shayne as played by Lloyd Nolan bears no resemblance at all to the Michael Shayne of the novels. None whatsoever.

Mary Beth Hughes is fine as the long-suffering Merle (she appeared in several movies in this series but as different characters). Helene Reynolds is very good as the glamorous woman who may or may not turn out to be a femme fatale.

Fox released four of the Michael Shayne movies (with extremely nice transfers) in a DVD set a few years back. They even included some worthwhile extras. If you can find the set and you’re a B-movie fan and you don’t mind B-movies with strong comedic elements then it’s good value.

I’ve seen all four movies in this set and this might be the one I enjoyed most. Lightweight but recommended.

I’ve also reviewed Michael Shayne: Private Detective (1940), The Man Who Wouldn't Die (1942) and Sleepers West (1941). You might also be interested in my review of one of the novels, Murder Is My Business.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Tattooed Stranger (1950)

The Tattooed Stranger is a 1950 RKO crime B-picture and it’s a pretty low-budget affair. It’s a police procedural and it fits it into the filmed-on-location with a semi-documentary feel sub-genre made popular by The Naked City a couple of tears earlier.

A woman’s body is found slumped in a car in a park in New York. She was killed by a shotgun blast. The police don’t know the woman’s identity, they don’t know where she was killed (although they do know she wasn’t killed where they found her), they don’t know why she was killed. Even the time of death is annoyingly imprecise. But life wasn’t meant to be easy for Homicide cops and Lieutenant Corrigan (Walter Kinsella) has been a policeman long enough to know that complaining won’t solve the case. All you have to do is be absolutely meticulous about getting every shred of physical evidence that the crime scene has to offer, then you need to start waring out shoe leather and start using your brain and your experience. He knows the drill.

He is not too happy about being partnered with Detective Frank Tobin (John Miles). Tobin is one of those college boys who used to be in the Scientific Squad and they’re OK with test tubes but are they any good at real police work? But Corrigan knows there’s no point complaining about this either, and maybe the kid will turn out not to be totally useless after all.

Now you might expect that these two mismatched cops are going to clash but this movie avoids that obvious cliché. Corrigan grumbles but he’s actually easy-going, Tobin is a friendly kind of guy and seems to know his job and they’re both professionals. They’re not prima donnas. Pretty soon they’re getting along just fine.

When a guy with a knife gets into the morgue and tries slicing up the Jane Doe’s body it becomes obvious that someone is really anxious to make it hard to identify her.

The evidence collected at the crime scene holds a couple of surprises, one involving the murder method which wasn’t as straightforward as it initially appeared, and one involving seeds that had no business being there. The seeds lead Detective Tobin to the Natural History Museum where he gets some help from a very pretty young lady botanist, Mary Mahan (Patricia Barry). She’s so cute and friendly he really doesn’t care if she provides useful information or not, he’s just happy if she smiles at him. And she does eventually provide some pretty useful help. She also adds some glamour and a hint of romance to what is otherwise a very hard-edged and quite sleazy little film.

There is of course, as the title suggests, one big clue - the murder victim had a tattoo. It’s surprising just how much a tattoo can tell a cop if he knows the right questions to ask and the right people to ask.

While Corrigan and Tobin follow up leads the killer is busily covering his tracks, and doing so with ruthless efficiency.

Director Edward Montagne only made a couple of features before moving into television work. He doesn’t do anything dazzling here but he doesn’t make any obvious mistakes. Screenwriter Philip H. Reisman Jr’s career followed exactly the same trajectory. His script for The Tattooed Stranger is neatly constructed. This film captures the feel of realistic routine police work very convincingly. These cops don’t rely on brilliant flashes of insight - they know their jobs and they know that the secret is to just keep plugging away.

The acting is a bit stilted in places although Patricia Barry is quite good. The slightly stilted acting can even be seen as a plus, giving the movie more of the documentary feel that it was clearly aiming for. Look out for Jack Lord in a very small part.

The Warner Archive DVD is barebones but image quality is very good. Being a 1950 movie it was of course shot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio so the fullframe transfer is correct.

This is a pure police procedural with no real claims to being film noir.

A very good story, good pacing, the occasional clever piece of dialogue, some effectively claustrophobic atmosphere (William O. Steiner’s cinematography is extremely good), competent directing and a well-executed climax would be enough to earn this one a recommended rating. It’s the superb location shooting, with its glimpses of life in the raw in some of the seediest parts of New York, that are more than enough to propel it into the highly recommended category. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s a neglected classic of its type and I liked it more than The Naked City.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Race Street (1948)

Race Street is an obscure 1948 RKO crime thriller starring George Raft and Raft’s presence is a good enough reason for me to want to watch such a movie.

Dan Gannin (Raft) is a big-time San Francisco bookie. His pal Barney Runson (William Bendix) is a police lieutenant. Dan might be a racketeer but he’s a decent guy and he’s definitely no hoodlum. Barney is an honest cop and he doesn’t approve of Dan’s operation but he doesn’t let him worry him. Maybe there are worse things than people wanting to bet on the ponies, and as long as people want to do that there are going to be bookies.

Dan is intending to retire. He’s opened a night club and he’s going to marry a swell gal named Robbie Lawrence (Marilyn Maxwell). 

Now there’s a new racket operating in the city. A protection racket. And that’s a whole different ball game. These people really are hoodlums. They’re moving on the city’s bookies. Barney would like Dan’s help but he’s not going to get it. Dan likes Barney a lot but he can’t be seen to run squealing to the cops when he’s in a jam. In Dan’s circle that is frowned upon. Dan isn’t in a jam yet, but he will be. And Dan’s best friend is already in that jam with the protection racketeers. That’s not the sort of thing Dan Gannin will hold still for. Barney know that no matter what he says Dan will insist on handling things his way and that’s going to be awkward.

It’s a straightforward plot setup but there is a twist which Dan doesn’t know about yet.

Dan and Barney are both on the track of the guy behind the protection racket ad they both intend to find him first.

Director Edward L. Marin was enjoying a successful career up until his untimely death in 1951. He does a generally decent and occasionally inspired job here. He pulls off a couple of pretty decent set-pieces, including two very different and equally tense scenes on the same staircase.

As to being a film noir, there’s really not much of the noir visual style here.

Content-wise there’s not much noirness in evidence either, except perhaps in the sense that Dan is a guy who was just about to get out of the rackets when all this aggravation descended upon him. But there’s only just enough to make it film noir. It’s just a noir-tinged tough-guy crime thriller really.

This is the sort of rôle George Raft carries off with effortless style. Raft had the ability to convince an audience that he was a seriously tough guy with a steak of ruthlessness but also a man who was fundamentally kind and generous. And that’s the sort of guy Dan Gannin is. If someone tries to push Dan around, well let’s just say he’s likely to push back,  but if you’re straight with him he’ll be the best friend you ever had. Dan is a likeable tough guy. His sensitive side is kept under wraps but Raft is good enough to make sure we know that that side is there.

William Bendix is pretty good as Barney, a very ordinary rather amiable cop who knows his job and takes it seriously.

Marilyn Maxwell, a second-string star now largely forgotten, is quite adequate as Robbie. Singer-actress-cheesecake model Gale Robbins adds some glamour as Dan’s sister Elaine, a sexy canary who headlines at Dan’s new club.

The Warner Archive release is what you expect - no extras but a very good transfer.

Race Street is minor-league stuff to be honest, with just not enough in the plot department to make it stand out. It’s the strong cast that carries it with Raft being particularly good. I like the gruff affection between Dan and Barney, guys who’ve been friends a long time.

Race Street is a competent crime melodrama. If you’re a George Raft completist like me you’ll want to buy it, otherwise it’s worth a rental. On the whole I liked it well enough.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

best classic movies I saw in 2020

These were the classic movies I enjoyed most during 2020. They’re listed in order of release date.

The Scarlet Empress (1934, Josef von Sternberg). The most gloriously excessive and uncompromising of von Sternberg. Style, style and more style.

The Fallen Idol (1948, Carol Reed). Scripted by Graham Greene. Intelligent, complex drama about human frailties.

The Small Voice (1948, Fergus McDonell). A gripping British crime thriller.

Naked Alibi (1954, Jerry Hopper). Superb film noir with an awesome cast - Gloria Grahame, Sterling Hayden and Gene Barry.

Une Parisienne (1957, Michel Boisrond). Charming French romantic comedy. What can I say? I adore Brigitte Bardot.

Room 43 (1958, Alvin Rakoff). Diana Dors in fine form in a steamy sleazy slightest noirish drama.

Man in the Back Seat (1961, Vernon Sewell). Absolutely top-notch offbeat British film noir.

Candidate for Murder (1962, David Villiers). A British Edgar Wallace thriller and a great example of what can be done on a limited budget.

Robbery (1967, Peter Yates). Brilliant British crime thriller from the director of Bullitt.

The posts that have been most popular with readers this year have been the very slightly noirish private eye mystery Twenty Plus Two (1961, Joseph M. Newman), the mildly disreputable and slightly trashy Girls in Prison (1956, Edward L. Cahn), the fine Brigitte Bardot romantic melodrama Futures Vedettes (1955, Marc Allégret), and the steamy crime potboiler The Girl in Black Stockings (1957, Howard W. Koch).

Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Son of Monte Cristo (1940)

The Son of Monte Cristo is a 1940 second-tier swashbuckler. You take some ideas borrowed from The Count of Monte Cristo, The Mark of Zorro, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Prisoner of Zenda and combine them in a blender and this is what you get. It’s all good clean fun.

The setting is the tiny Balkan principality of Lichtenburg in 1865 (very much like the mythical Ruritania of The Prisoner of Zenda). Lichtenburg is ruled by the young and beautiful, and much-loved, Grand Duchess Zona (Joan Bennett) but the real power is in the hands of the unscrupulous and brutal General Gurko Lanen (George Sanders). The Grand Duchess’s loyal prime minister sends her on a desperate mission to Paris to seek aid from the Emperor Napoleon III (a sensible idea since Napoleon III was much addicted to getting France involved in crazy foreign adventures). Unfortunately Gurko Lanen gets wind of the mission and is determined to prevent Zona from reaching Paris.

Just when Zona is desperately in need of a swashbuckling hero to rescue her, lo and behold, such a hero appears on the scene. He is Edmund Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo (not the famous one but apparently his son). The Count (played by Louis Hayward) is the kind of guy who spends most of his life just waiting for the opportunity to save damsels in distress and of course he is a great hater of tyrants.

Sadly he has, initially, mixed success in his rescue attempts and Zona ends up back in the clutches of Gurko Lanen. And she discovers, to her horror, that he has plans to force her into marrying him. She is horrified. It’s bad enough that he’s a ruthless tyrant, but he’s also a commoner. In fact, a former peasant.

Naturally Dantes gets mixed up in the resistance movement. Their objective is to free the Grand Duchess from Gurko Lanen’s influence but first they will have to free the imprisoned prime minister. Someone will have to get into the palace. Dantes feels he can easily do this since he happens to be a very rich banker with whom Gurko Lanen has been trying to negotiate a loan (yes, this movie does rely rather a lot on lucky coincidences). If he plays the fool as well no-one will suspect what he is up to.

The plot has some pleasing twists and there are times when you really think that the hero can’t possibly get out of the mess he’s landed himself in.

Of course any 1940 Hollywood movie dealing with tyrannies would have been made with a strong political subtext. Fortunately in this case the point isn’t laboured too much and can be safely ignored and the viewer can just get on with enjoying the movie.

Director Rowland V. Lee had a particular talent for making swashbuckling adventure films and it’s no surprise that he handles this directing assignment extremely well. Screenwriter George Bruce also did plenty of movies in this genre. Even if this one is just ideas from other swashbucklers cobbled together the ideas are at least cobbled together reasonably coherently and entertainingly.

Louis Hayward makes a fine dashing hero and Joan Bennett is a perfectly acceptable and suitably haughty heroine. It goes without saying that the movie really belongs to George Sanders. He gives a splendid larger-than-life performance and he has the advantage of having by far the most interesting rôle in the film. Gurko Lanen is just a little bit more than a cardboard villain. As a peasant who has clawed his way to the top he has a convincing motivation for seeking power. And he is genuinely in love with Zona, and he does have reasonable grounds for thinking that her rejection of him has a lot to do with his humble birth. Even if it’s hard to actually sympathise with him we can at least understand what drives him.

The Cheezy Flicks DVD release offers a less than pristine but reasonably acceptable transfer and it is cheap.

This movie looks good (it was filmed in black-and-white) and it has some decent action scenes (and plenty of them), and of course some romance. As long as you don’t set your expectations too high The Son of Monte Cristo is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure romp and the performance of George Sanders on its own is enough reason to see this one. Swashbuckling fans should be quite satisfied. Recommended.

You might also be interested in my reviews of some of the movies that pretty obviously influenced this one, such as The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Prisoner of Zenda.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Merry Christmas to everyone

 


Merry Christmas to everyone. I hope Santa brought you lots of classic movie DVDs.